Monday, July 21, 2008

Stephen King and Bias

This weekend I read my first Stephen King novel, Lisey’s Story, an entertaining and captivating novel that I enjoyed greatly. For many years I shared the bias that seems prevalent against King, thinking that such popular writing couldn’t be good as well. That King’s novels didn’t deserve to be considered alongside the more ‘literary’ fiction of which I was becoming enamored.

I freely admit that this bias is somewhat irrational and totally elitist. However, the popularity v. quality logic is hard for me to dismiss too quickly. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but I think that the popularity of television shows like American Idol give some credence to the idea that anything widely popular must be a form of pandering.

That said, I don’t think King panders in this book at all; the characters are well drawn, the prose is inventive and moves along briskly. In fact, I find it hard to understand why King
hasn’t gotten more accolades for his work. In 2003 he was awarded a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation, the same organization responsible for awarding the National Book Award each year. This attention, along with the completion of his Dark Tower series, considered to be his magnum opus, have raised his profile among the more elite literary community.

King got the Paris Review treatment in the Fall of 2006, discussing frankly the reception of his work and the line between popular and literary fiction, saying he felt that ‘the real breaking point comes when you ask whether a book engages you on an emotional level.’ To me, this seems sensible criteria. Personally, I enjoy reading about characters and how they react to situations, and I think this is why I enjoyed Lisey’s Story so much. These are bold, well drawn characters full of passion, be it love or hate, for each other, and despite the supernatural elements, I found the relationships to be truthful, to possess a verisimilitude of which other authors should be envious.

A year or so ago I watched an interview with John Grisham on the Charlie Rose show, where the discussion ran along similar lines to King’s in the Paris Review. More eloquent men than I have already made the argument for genre, so I’ll skip it here, but I was amazed at the time how similar Grisham’s responses were to not only King’s, but also to the comments made by other, more ‘literary’ authors. And at the time I filed him in the list of authors I should get around to reading one day.

But after finishing Lisey’s Story last night and rereading the conversation in the Paris Review, I realized something that bothers me. I only read King after he was published in a literary magazine founded by George Plimpton. I only got interested in Grisham after he appeared on a respected discussion program on PBS. Neither of these forums are frequented by or tailored to serve the majority of the these author's readers. Am I less elitist now than I was ten years ago when I dismissed these writers as lacking something essential, lacking perhaps any artistic touch? Or has the defense of genre become so accepted by the elitist community I belong to that I’ve just been caught adapting my own philosophies to what I’ve been told?

These questions aren’t easy to deal with, but in a sense I think I may be asking the wrong ones. Am I more receptive to King now because it has become more accepted to view his work as literary? Probably, but a more telling question would be this: were some of my misconceptions about King challenged by critics that I respect causing me to open myself to an author whose work I found quite enjoyable and worthy of the praise it has received?

All of us are wrong or biased about so many things that all we can really hope to do is pay attention, and when unjustified bias is pointed out to us adapt our behavior and thoughts to compensate.


Brendan Moody said...

I think King himself might well agree with some kind of broad dichotomy within his own work, be it "popularity vs. quality" or "genre vs. literary." In one of his introductions to the Dark Tower books, he draws a distinction between stories in which writers (i.e. him, I think) ask themselves what the story would mean to them, and stories in which they ask what it would mean to others. And in a note on his short story collection Everything's Eventual, he divides the stories into "more literary stories" and "all-out screamers."

I don't think there's anything wrong with the idea that much popular, mass market entertainment is shallow (or can be shallowly interpreted). This is true simply because most people don't enjoy thinking about their entertainment. Which is fine, of course: some elite types may maintain the delusion that meditating on themes makes their enjoyment of art higher or more pure, but I say that ultimately it's a form of personal consolation no matter how you dress it up. If it wasn't, we wouldn't bother.

I think that the reason writers like King succeed is not that they pander, but that their imaginations are in sync with those of the public. In some ways "literary" vs. "popular" is a class/economic distinction, and King was thoroughly lower middle class until he began hitting it big as a writer. He loves the gruesome "Boo!" moment in a way that more literary writers have been trained not to. I don't think you can fake that, which is why King's paler imitators, many of whom may well be pandering, haven't caught on.

(Which brings up another, tangentially relevant point: discussions of pandering, or lowest common denominator appeal, often suggest that this is easy to achieve. But if that were so, every would-be Stephen King would be a bestseller, and every Friends clone would be a hit.)

I'm glad you enjoyed Lisey's Story. When you're ready to read more King, I'd recommend Hearts in Atlantis or Bag of Bones.

Jon Polk said...

King does indeed discriminate between the two types of his work in the Paris Review interview. Since it was given at the time Cell and Lisey's Story were released, he uses them as examples of how all his fiction is meant to be entertaining, yet some only meant to be entertaining on one level. Among his work that he feels works on multiple levels are It, Dolores Claiborne, and Misery. A book like Misery seems to be right up my alley.

I like your theory that King's success lies in his imagination being more in sync with the mainstream public than, say, Gore Vidal. That makes a lot of sense to me, and actually helps explain my own tastes a bit.

I appreciate the recommendations for more King; I'd expect to read at least one more before school starts. And perhaps at some point I will tackle the Dark Tower series. I tried the first novel about ten years ago and found it stale, but I see that a revised edition has come out since then.